The Climate Convention: the allotted don’t want to be extras

An article by Béatrice Bouniol in La Croix, September 19 [Original in French].

The allotment of citizens tasked with making proposals for handling with the climate. This unprecedented experiment arouses excitement and high expectations.

“A woman, 65 years old or older, retired, no college education”. The target of the moment is inscribed on a whiteboard. 4 days remain for the pollsters of Harris Interactive to recruit 150 citizens to the Climate Convention. For now, this means randomly selecting a sample representative of the French population.

It is in fact one of the lessons of the Grand Debate and the regional citizen conferences. Volunteers can be easily recruited in some categories of the population – college educated urban men, for example. In order to avoid bias, several criteria were added to the random generation of telephone numbers: age, gender, education, social-professional categories as well as place of residence.

“A real will to participate”

In the locations of Harris Interactive, the voices mix. The eyes are fixed on the computers, the pollsters proceed step by step. They present the objective of the convention: to come up with proposals to fight global warming. Explaining the availability required of the participants – six week-ends during six [sic] months, starting in October and ending in January. Then detailing all that is provided in order to facilitate participation: payment as for trial juries, reimbursement of expenses including childcare.

And that works rather well. “The main objective is to find people who are able to make the time”, says Gaspard Lancrey-Javal who manages the allotment for Harris Interactive. “But there is a real will to participate, even among those who have not already heard about the citizen convention. In general, people understand that they may not eventually be selected for reasons of representativity. However some call us back, worried that we have not called them back. There is a lot of enthusiasm behind all of that.”

“Really” participate, rather than simply “be consulted with”

In the first round of random calls, two thirds of the people expressed interest, although half of those were tentative and said they would have to see if they were able to arrange for their attendance. This is a percentage of positive responses higher than of those registered for the national Grand Debate, Gaspard Lancrey-Javal points out, and “very good reception in general”. The climate has become among the highest concerns of the French, and so has the desire to “really” participate, rather than simply “be consulted with”.

The organizers of the citizen convention recognize the value of this motivation, but although recognize its fragility. So far, the resources provided allow for fairness in the procedure. So does the commitment of the president to submit the proposals of the citizens “as is” to a discussion in parliament or to a referendum, or to adopt them in a decree.

But according to the general commissioner of the citizen convention, Julien Blanchet, “the test of commitment will occur at the first session, planned to occur on October 4th or 6th at the CESE (Economic, Social and Environmental Council) building. Some will arrive already committed, others will decide on the spot.” About 40 substitutes will have to be ready to fill in for those who drop out.

“The first question people always ask is: why should I serve?” says Quentin Sauzay, co-president of Démocratie ouverte [Open Democracy], a citizen collective working for democratic innovation. “In other words, how do we know that our proposals are not going to end up in a drawer like many other reports?” For now, according to a recent poll, 48% of the French think that this convention is a good thing, while 52% think it is a gimmick. The upcoming 6 months will therefore be critical.

13 Responses

  1. This convention is a foot in the door the use of sortition in French politics many French Kleroterians look at it carefully.

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  2. Absolutely an iconic project to follow – and so good to see the extended deliberation time the government and organisers agreed to for it. This gives them such a good chance of reaching common ground and to really wrestle with the hard parts of the recommendations.

    Be good to hear from others regarding the use of polling companies: immediate little red flag is the need for 40 reserves on 150 people. For context, on a group of 150 where its national, visible and you are arranging travel for a good proportion of them (so know they’ll turn up!) i would be thinking 6-8 is the reserve number. Polling companies can struggle to convey what people are getting involved in.

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  3. Iain>> immediate little red flag is the need for 40 reserves on 150 people.

    Agreed, it is a lot of reserve, ex ante. Actual drop-outs ex-post will be known afterwards, but it will be a function of the perceived power vested in this exercise and the realism of their exact mandate. I have not read much about the latter yet.

    Why would the government not use a polling company, provided their process is unambiguous, transparent and independently audited? It’s their core business to recruit “representative” sample (albeit an elusive concept …). Specialised companies have the infrastructure and the methodic know-how to do it correctly.

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  4. A mini-public differs notably from a poll. There are many explanation why on this cool website.

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  5. Not so. Fishkin’s deliberative polling programme is an attempt to institutionalise the Dahlian notion of a mini-public as a portrait in miniature of the population that it represents descriptively. The true distinction is between a minipublic and the (undertheorised) notion of a “citizens’ assembly”.

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  6. Just noticed: “the objective of the convention: to come up with proposals to fight global warming.”

    Assuming, this writeup is correct: This kind of task seems to be the latest fashion of brainwave. Just like the Scotland Citizen Assembly. I predict iconic futility of this iconic exercise.

    As an analog: No venture capitalist in his right mind would put 100 random people in a room and seriously expect them to come up with viable startup proposals for the next big thing in fintech, life science or quantum computing.

    Policy proposals are the domain of social and political entrepreneurs.

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  7. “no venture capitalist” I like the analogy :-), as if capitalism and its massive use of fossil fuel was not one of the reason why we are facing the climate change problem.

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  8. Keith – What is deliberative polling?

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  9. Thank you very much this is very instructive. I didn’t know there were so many of them already. But yet I would then say that deliberative polling differs notably from “classic” polling as the video underscores.

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  10. Hubertus – just regarding your “no venture capitalist” comment. They wouldn’t ask them to design viable proposals from scratch, but they would 100% want the investee companies to do market testing to see which offering had the balance of features, useability and pricing so that those paying for it were feeling the best value and satisfaction. So there is a real role to be played here: everyone wants clean energy and a good environment: the politically tricky part is finding the price citizens are willing to pay for it.

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  11. Iain – we are in sync on this first part: VCs certainly want to see market testing of their entrepreneurs’ business proposals, the Voice of the Customer. Best practice is to do this with representative sample of potential buyers. And in analogy, for political proposals, citizen juries are perfectly suitable for this task, actually the best option we have.

    My point is: in business, it is not the representative sample’s task to come up with the proposals on which they subsequently decide. It is self-evident that this would produce serious cognitive distortions, as they are invested in their own proposals. I believe the same applies for political policy innovation.

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    PS: Regarding that politically tricky part you mention, there is significant technical progress: With modern, collective-intelligence empowered (i.e. predictive) MR methodology and a reasonably representative gen-pop sample, this is perfectly possible. We start with specific, fleshed-out feature/pricing proposals (including the null-option/status quo). Then we ask them to predict consequences and future satisfaction, contingent on implementing a proposal (or not). Quantitative and qualitative analysis of these predictions is automated. Only then, we let them go on to vote on a proposal, one head one vote. So if a proposal wins over the status quo it follows logically that they are willing to pay the implied price. Works like a charm. Happy to share some practical cases offline.

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  12. Hubertus:> In business, it is not the representative sample’s task to come up with the proposals on which they subsequently decide. It is self-evident that this would produce serious cognitive distortions, as they are invested in their own proposals. I believe the same applies for political policy innovation.

    I think most of us on this blog are increasingly in agreement on this — Alex Kovner has just published an online book (EbL link forthcoming) in which he tries to flesh out this distinction in institutional terms. As for “cognitive distortions”, this fits nicely with the Sperber/Mercier “argumentative theory of reasoning” which posits distinct cognitive modules for proposing and disposing, which developed in order to “enable humans to communicate even when trust is limited” (Landemore, 2013, p. 126). Whilst it’s possible for individuals to switch between the two cognitive modules, confirmation bias (which is valuable for the former) corrupts the latter function, so it’s better to have two discrete agencies.

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